In July 2018, Fall River’s brash, young mayor, Jasiel F. Correia II, knew the FBI was investigating his past financial dealings in a tech startup when he showed up at the home of a mayoral aide to collect a bribe from a marijuana company looking to open a dispensary in the city, according to federal prosecutors.
The aide, a longtime friend named Hildegar Camara, led Correia to a shed behind his house, where he retrieved an envelope filled with $25,000 in crisp, new $100 bills, prosecutors allege. But as Correia watched, he grew suspicious, fearing it was “Fed money” left by investigators, according to prosecutors.
Correia didn’t take the money, which Camara quickly returned to a middleman after wiping the envelope of fingerprints, prosecutors allege.
Yet, the mayor’s hesitation was short-lived, according to prosecutors. Over the next two months, he received more than $50,000 from the company, part of $600,000 he allegedly extorted from four marijuana vendors while in office, according to a federal indictment.
More than five years after the Democrat earned national attention for being elected Fall River’s youngest mayor at age 23, Correia is heading to trial on widespread corruption charges that have driven him from office and recalled an era when brazen influence peddling and graft in politics were more commonplace.
“This is an old-school public corruption bribery case, which you don’t see very much anymore,” said Brian T. Kelly, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. “A jury will have to decide, but the government is going to try to prove he’s a modern-day version of former Boston mayor James Michael Curley.”
Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Monday in US District Court in Boston in Correia’s trial on charges of extortion conspiracy, extortion aiding and abetting, bribery, tax evasion, and lying to investigators. Correira, 29, is accused of shaking down marijuana companies, bilking more than $230,000 from investors in a tech startup to bankroll his lavish lifestyle, and forcing his chief of staff to return half of her city salary to him.
A cast of marijuana company owners, businessmen, “middlemen,” and former aides are slated to testify against Correia, including a handful who have accepted plea deals in return for their cooperation. The indictment alleges that many payments were funneled to Correira through Camara and two other trusted friends after meetings with marijuana vendors at cigar bars, doughnut shops, and swanky restaurants. Payments were sometimes disguised as campaign donations, but in one instance, Correia personally accepted $75,000 cash from a marijuana vendor inside his city-issued car, then handed him a “non-opposition letter” required to obtain state approval for a dispensary, the indictment alleges.
Correia’s lawyer, Kevin Reddington, declined to comment on the charges, but Correia has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong. During a documentary series, “Run this City,” that aired last year, Correia said, “I’m innocent until proven guilty and I’m not going to be proven guilty.” It is not known whether Correia will testify.
The trial is expected to last several weeks. US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock said only 26 people, including jurors, Correia, and the defense and prosecution teams, will be allowed in the courtroom because of social distancing requirements. The public may watch from an overflow courtroom or on Zoom.
Citing the pandemic, the judge restricted public access during jury selection, which began Tuesday, making it unclear whether opening statements will begin immediately Monday morning or later in the day. The only indication that a jury has been seated is a notation on the docket showing the prosecution and defense met privately with the judge Thursday to exercise their peremptory challenges, the final stage of jury selection. Late Friday, a court spokeswoman said the parties were “aiming to complete jury selection” Monday morning, but couldn’t confirm whether 16 jurors, including four alternates, have been selected and only need to be sworn in.
The case will be watched closely in Fall River, where Correia’s meteoric rise took him to the mayor’s office in 2016, only two years after being appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council. Despite efforts to recall him after his indictment in 2018 in an alleged scheme to bilk investors in SnoOwl, a smartphone app he created six years earlier, Correia won reelection. But he was defeated in 2019 after his arrest on extortion and bribery charges during his time as mayor, including the alleged shakedown of marijuana vendors.
“I believe there’s still some people who feel he did nothing wrong,” Fall River City Councilor Linda Pereira said, adding that Correia had a “silver tongue” and could convince just about anyone of anything. “He convinced the whole community that he was doing these great things.”
But, Pereira, who ran unsuccessfully against Correia in 2017, said anything positive he had done for the city was far overshadowed by his alleged misdeeds.
“People tend to be skeptical of government and that didn’t help,” Pereira said. “To have this pay-to-play attitude is not what Fall River is about. I think that is hurtful to the residents of the community.”
Recreational marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2016, creating fierce competition for licenses to open lucrative dispensaries. The state required applicants to obtain a letter of “non-opposition” from the head of local government, verifying their proposed dispensaries were in compliance with zoning laws. In Fall River, that meant Correia.
“You have a situation where local authorities or mayors could be extremely tempted to take a bribe or try to extort a business in exchange” for their consent, then-US Attorney Andrew Lelling said during a press conference to announce Correia’s arrest in 2019.
Prosecutors allege Correia warned marijuana companies that he planned to issue only a small number of non-opposition letters and those that wanted them had to pay. Correia is accused of plotting with his former chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, Camara, and two other associates, Antonio Costa and David Hebert, to extort payments ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 from at least four marijuana vendors between 2016 and 2018. When one marijuana company owner asked why he was demanding so much, Correia said he needed to raise money for his legal bills, according to the indictment.
Correia is accused of accepting a “Batman” Rolex, valued at $12,000, from Hebert, in exchange for having the city pay to activate water to a building Hebert owned.
Correira is also accused of requiring Andrade to kickback half of her $78,780 annual salary to him, as well as a $10,000 stipend she received from the city for working during snow emergencies.
Camara, Costa, and Hebert have all pleaded guilty to charges related to the alleged scheme and have agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency. They are on the government’s list of witnesses expected to testify against Correia. Andrade pleaded guilty to charges in December but is not on the government’s witness list.
The indictment also alleges that Correia was involved in a separate scheme related to SnoOwl, a smartphone app he created in 2012. He’s accused of persuading seven people to invest nearly $364,000 in the company, then secretly diverting at least $231,000 “to fund his own lavish lifestyle, burgeoning political career, and the needs of his other business ventures,” according to the indictment.
Between 2013 and 2015, the indictment alleges, Correia looted SnoOwl’s bank account to pay for jewelry, a Mercedes, designer clothes, airfare, travel, and entertainment. He’s also accused of setting up recurring payments from the account funded by investors to pay his student loan and car payments, and for dating services.
Within months of becoming mayor, Correia “began monetizing his official position to fund his lavish lifestyle and mounting legal bills,” the indictment alleges. On the day of his arrest two years ago, Lelling said Correia had “engaged in an outrageous, brazen campaign to turn his job into a personal ATM.”